Connecting To God In A Post-Biblical Age
Does God Speak To Us Today?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this four-video series, Rabbi Fohrman tackles a very difficult and important question: does God speak with us today? He uses the lens of Joseph's story to understand what non-prophetic communication with God could look like today.
Over these next weeks, the Parshiyot will be dealing with the epic Joseph story, and what I thought I'd do is to try to put together a four-part series with a more comprehensive view. If you miss a week in the middle, just back up and watch last week's and then just continue on with what you are up to. But let's dig in right here. Let me begin with a question that's much larger than the Joseph story but I think the Joseph story has a lot to say about it: Does God speak with us today?
How Do We Know When God Is Speaking with Us?
Prayer is a really important part of the game in the relationship between people and God, but the problem is, we spend all this time talking to God, does God spend any time talking back to us? And let me be clear, I don't mean like kind of God talks to you because I feel like so inspired, and I think that that's God talking to me. Yeah, you could say that, but that's a very subjective thing. I am talking about something a little bit more concrete that you could really stand up and say, "God is really talking to me". Can you be a rational person and believe that God is talking to you? We don't live in an age of prophecy anymore - there were prophets. So does that mean God doesn't talk to us, or in an age where prophecy is absent, can God speak to us non-prophetically too? And if so, what would that look like?
That is what I want to explore with you in the context of the Joseph story, and here is why. If you would look throughout the book of Genesis for some sort of model for God to communicate with mankind in a way that is not prophetic, that would be very hard to find. When God speaks to Adam, that's like a prophecy. When God speaks to Noah, that's a prophecy too, to Abraham, to Isaac to Jacob; these were all prophecies. There is one generation in the Book of Genesis where there doesn't seem to be any prophecy at all, and it's Joseph's generation. You will never find the words, “and God spoke to Joseph, saying”; “and God spoke to Judah, saying”. You never find that with Joseph and his brothers. God seems to be silent in this generation. So the next question is: Was God absolutely silent, or did God find a way to talk to someone like Joseph without really talking to him? Are there any moments in which Joseph seems pretty convinced that God has been speaking to him, that he has some sort of unique insight that no one else has into God's plan? Does that ever happens? And the answer is I think it does, at least twice.
Does God Use Dreams to Speak to Us?
Now, before I get to those two times, let me just actually dismiss one possibility out of hand. What you might is obviously the first time that God communicates with Joseph is his dreams in this week's parsha. The first one that he and his brothers are gathering wheat and the stalks of wheat belonging to his brothers start bowing to his stalks of wheat. Then he had this other dream, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars all bowing to Joseph. So maybe this is God's way of talking to Joseph; maybe this is God's way of talking to us, through dreams.
The problem is that Joseph's dreams don't really do much for him, do they? As a matter of fact, the only thing they really do is they get him thrown in a pit, and sold off as a slave. It's almost like, well if that's how God talks to us, well then no thanks, I am not interested.
So let's leave Joseph's dreams aside for a moment and let me ask you, are there any other times that Joseph seems to be privy to sort kind of divine communication? God talking to Joseph so to speak, without really talking to him. So here are the two cases that comes to mind.
The first is Joseph's interpretation of Pharaoh's dream. It's a dream about these seven beautiful cows that are swallowed alive by these ugly cows, and Pharaoh knows it means something but he can't figure out what it means and all his astrologers can't figure it out either. One of Pharaoh's servants remembers that back in prison there had been this Hebrew fellow who knew how to interpret dreams. They haul out Joseph, and Pharaoh basically says, "so I hear you know how to how to interpret dreams?" “Biladai”, he says, it's not me, “Elokim ya'aneh et-shlom Paroh," it is God who will answer Pharaoh.
The next thing that happens is that Pharaoh tells his dream over to Joseph and Joseph just goes and interprets it. It doesn't say that God spoke to Joseph and said "here is what the dream meant". So now the question is, how seriously should we take Joseph when he says, "God will interpret the dream for you"? On the one hand, it might just be that Joseph is being kind of humble about it. But maybe God did speak to Joseph without speaking to him somehow. It wasn't like, "And then God said to Joseph…" it wasn't a prophecy, it was something else.
Does God Speak to Us Directly or in Our Minds?
The next time something like this happens, is years later. Joseph of course, rose up through the ranks of Egyptian royalty to become second in charge to the King, now he is in charge of all the grain of the land during times of famine, and along come the brothers, and the brother's don't recognize him but he recognizes them. Finally, he reveals himself, ani Yosef achichem, "I am Joseph your brother who you sold down to Egypt, but now," al-te'atzevu, "do not be upset," al-yichar beineichem, "do not be angry at one another," ki-mechartem oti henah, "that you sold me here," ki-mechartem oti henah ki lemichyah shlachani Elokim lifneichem "because God did it so that I could provide for you during these times of famine." He continues, v'atah, and now, lo-atem shlachtem oti henah "It wasn't you that sent me here to Egypt," ki-haElokim "it was God." And he says it again years later, after Yaakov, the father of Joseph and his brothers had died, Joseph say look, atem chashavtem alai ra'ah, "it's true that you thought to do evil to me in throwing me into the pit", Elokim chashavah letovah, "but God made it work out okay." Lema'an asoh kayom hazeh, "God had his own plans to bring us to this day", lehachayot am-rav, "when I could take care of you and make you into a great nation by feeding you during this time of famine".
So Joseph has this great insight into the Divine plan. I understand why all this happened, it was providential. Now, one more time, we don't have any record of God coming down and telling Joseph this is my plan. So how did Joseph know? Is it possible that this too is an example of God speaking to Joseph without actually talking to him? Is there a way for God to speak without speaking? That's the question of non-prophetic communication. If it could exist in the generation of Joseph, maybe it could exist in our generation too. Maybe there is a way that God speaks to us and maybe the story of Joseph provides a model.
The Ways of How God Speaks with Us
Pharaoh asked all of his astrologers, his chartumim, and none of them can successfully interpret the dream. But when he tells the dream to Joseph, Joseph immediately knows what it means. The seven good cows, those are seven good years, the seven really ugly cows, they’re seven really terrible years of famine. When the seven bad cows devoured the seven good cows, it means that the seven years of famine is going to be so bad that it's going to make people forget that there were ever seven years of plenty. Pharaoh seems to know intuitively that this interpretation is correct. He is so impressed that he sets him up as second in command and charges him with administering the grain in Egypt during those crucial fourteen years.
And now to the question of how Joseph knew this. God never whispers in his ear, we don't have any record of that in the Torah. If there is some sort of hidden communication between God and Joseph lurking in this text, what might it look like? What exactly are we searching for here?
If you were God and you wanted to impart the meaning of this dream to Joseph, you don't actually have to tell him the whole long spiel about these seven cows represent, what the other seven cows represent, and what it means when this one eats that one. There is really one key piece of information. If you give him that one key piece, he will just be able to extrapolate the rest logically. What is that key piece of information? It's that cows equal years. The commentaries talk about how Pharaoh's astrologers they had so many wrong ideas about this: maybe the cows mean types of crops, or maybe they mean daughters of Pharaoh, or maybe they represent cities? Joseph's key insight is that what they represent is time, and the units of time are years.
You see, once you know that cows equal years, then obviously seven beautiful cows is going to equal seven beautiful years, and seven bad cows is going to be seven bad years. Seven bad cows' swallow seven good cows, it means that seven bad years are going to be so bad, you're not going to remember seven good years. All that is logical once you know that cows equal years. Could God have found a way to somehow convey that one little piece of information to Joseph? And if we replay the story in slow motion, we kind of find out where that happened.
So Pharaoh hauls Joseph out of the pit, says "I hear you know how to interpret dreams", Joseph says "it's not really me, it's God", and the next thing that happens is that Pharaoh just tells him his dreams, and Joseph just somehow knows how to interpret it. The only one who said anything to Joseph was Pharaoh. Was there something in Pharaoh's words that tipped Joseph off? Maybe the interpretation of the dream was embedded in such a way that only Joseph would have understood its meaning. How could you put something in the dream that only Joseph would understand?
How Do We Understand the Messages God Speaks to Us?
Let's imagine you have a whole bunch of family and friends around your Shabbat table. So the first thing you do is you ask for a volunteer - that volunteer is going to play God. Now that volunteer, let's call him Bob, Bob gets to look around the table and nominate his good friend, he is going to play Joseph. Everybody else around the table, they get to play Pharaoh's astrologers.
Now here is how the competition works: You are going to come up with a secret message and you are going to whisper it to Bob. Now, maybe the secret message is "peach pie is for desert". Now Bob's job is to somehow communicate that message to Joseph who is at the other end of the table without any of these astrologers figuring out what he is trying to say. It's not an easy task, but it can be done. Bob and Joseph have one thing going for them - they know each other. Bob gets to nominate a friend of his, so he and his friend, they would have had experiences together that he and others would not have shared. And maybe he can somehow leverage those experiences to communicate something new to Joseph.
So imagine you are Bob and three years ago you went on a ski trip with your friend playing Joseph at the other end of the table, and you pack some peaches for a snack, so you might say, "Remember when we were on this ski trip, the snack that we had." And maybe when you were kids, you were in geometry class, so you say hey, "remember when we were back in Mr. Albertson's class and we couldn't figure out that strange Greek letter thing." Cobbling together a new message by piecing together your prior experiences, and if you did you could talk just to him without anybody else around the table understanding you.
Might the real God have been doing something similar with the real Joseph? Could it be that embedded in the dream were certain things that were in sort of the set of shared experiences that God knew about and Joseph knew about? God makes use of that shared experience to communicate something new, to communicate cows' equals years. Let's take a closer look next week.